Models Wanted! exhibit. By the students of École secondaire Mont-de-La Salle. Courtesy of the MMFA.

Culture | Body image activism on display

Models Wanted! confronts oppressive fashion standards

The evening of May 26 marked the grand opening of the Models Wanted! exhibit. Students, critics, artists and activists crowded into the lobby, sipping glasses of wine and eagerly glancing towards the closed doors of the gallery. Like-minded enthusiasts began to discuss the perception of body image in Western culture and media. Is there really a solution for the oppressive beauty standards in the world? Is this an issue that art has the power to change?

Featured at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), Models Wanted! ran until August 21 and marked the twenty-fifth anniversary of ÉquiLibre; an organization founded to prevent and reduce issues associated with weight and body image by promoting healthy living. As part of the EducArt project organized by ÉquiLibre, youth from across the Greater Montreal Area submitted multi-media work to the museum that expresses support for body image activism – to acknowledge beauty in a variety of forms and challenge contemporary beauty ideals. The collection ranged from silhouettes, paintings, to celebrity collages; each piece inspiring retrospection and insight into the modern culture of body image diversity.

Bodies of art

The doors opened to a space that held a variety collages, paintings, portraits, and sculptures. I was particularly intrigued by how some artists chose to re-imagine celebrity figures who are known for their engagement with body confidence, like Adele and Oprah Winfrey. These same artists assembled a series of large-scale portraits of famous personas, integrating magazine clippings, fake eyelashes, and beads into them. They represented bodies as collections of shapes and faces demonstrate the objectification of the human form and the materialization of beauty.

The collages depicted notable celebrities: Marilyn Monroe, Bruno Mars, Rebel Wilson, among others. Through portraying smiling and singing figures, the artists showed how successful stars brought body confidence to the forefront. Even as their personas were being celebrated through art, I couldn’t help but notice the perfectly tanned and beautifully toned fashion advertisements drawn across the collages. The pieces created a unique experience, representing the duality of the celebrities’ personal achievement and the persistent struggle of media influence. This media influence continues to limit representations of ethnicity, disability and diverse sexuality, creating a standardized definition of beauty that fails to encompass a fair range of diversity.

Is there really a solution for the oppressive beauty standards in the world? Is this an issue that art has the power to change?

Other pieces addressed the destructive and disturbing standards of beauty head-on, with dark silhouettes and loud proclamations right on canvas. This portion of the exhibition depicted phrases and quotations in large font about coming to terms with one’s body. One of them read (in translation), “The mirror reflects your image but your spirit reflects beauty in each look […].” The images and the text together reflect the difficulty of learning to love oneself and the pain that comes from feeling flawed. These pieces featured nameless and faceless figures. Each one was defined by shadows and dark outlines with compelling contrasts of light and body shape.

The collaboration with ÉquiLibre is only the beginning for the MMFA. The museum is going through great, progressive changes to implement more community-conscious projects. the Director of the Education and Community Programs, Jean-Luc Murray, sat down with The Daily, and talked about his intention to shift “the perception of exclusivity” away from the art museum. Envisioning many future reforms for the museum, he hopes that the MMFA can become a “museum of the 21st century” in regards to social inclusivity.

Models Wanted! is a positive step toward rectifying the museum’s historical exclusivity.

Nathalie Bondil, Director and Chief Curator, stated that the museum seeks to “spread the important message of appreciating the diversity of our bodies and [recognize] the many faces of beauty.” Models Wanted! brings this message to the forefront, acting as a source of inspiration for the advocacy of healthy body image representation in the media.

The institution in question

The MMFA is making great strides towards inclusivity and community activism, but some believe that this has not always been the case. The MMFA claims their World Cultures and Mediterranean Archaeology collections are incomparable across Canada, but the museum has been previously criticized in the past for lack of diversity and cultural integration. The “Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: From Spain to Morocco” exhibit in 2015 received backlash for its representations and glorification of colonialism and orientalism. The truth of the culture and the oppressive history displayed through the exhibit sparked heated debates over how diversity is represented at the MMFA.

The criticized absence of diversity within museum exhibits is due to the historically privileged canon of Western art. While this is an important critique to keep in mind, Models Wanted! is a positive step toward rectifying the museum’s historical exclusivity. Previous critiques on the western-centric perspective of the museum may still arise, but overall the collection attempts to extend support rather than marginalize and exclude. The exhibit not only shed light on an important issue in an innovative way, but also acts as a piece in a much larger movement for inclusivity.

[The media] continues to limit representations of ethnicity, disability, and […] sexuality, creating a standardized definition of beauty that fails to encompass a fair range of diversity.

The Education and Community Sector of the Museum recognizes issues of cultural oppression and marginalization as they move away from the elitism and cultural erasure associated with historic institutions of fine art. Their efforts are duly noted, as they strive to reimagine the possibilities of the modern art museum progressing past western-centric exclusivity. This is all encompassed within their “Sharing the Museum” program. The Education and Community Sector website claims that their program is based upon “open-mindedness, [and] an attentive ear and action.” The initiative has collaborated with over 400 local partnerships and organizations. Overall, it will be very interesting to see the follow-through of this museum sector, and the ways in which they work to implement community inclusivity.

Breaking the body image crisis

ÉquiLibre Ambassador and McGill graduate, Isabelle Scantland Lebel, was present at the exhibition to promote Models Wanted!. She explained the importance of “fitness for the sake of fun” rather than to achieve a beach-ready body. As a fitness instructor and program organizer, Lebel works hard to challenge the societal norms of fitness and beauty in media. She described her work as bringing physical education to underprivileged areas outside Montreal and broadening the conversation of body image acceptance and healthy living to include those who may not have access to such resources.

Lebel sees firsthand the effects that programs such as EducArt have on self-esteem and body image. Children, through her own programs and experience, become more self-assured and less likely to engage in unhealthy behaviour in an effort to enhance their physical appearance. According to Institut de la statistique du Quebec, in 2012 , 71 per cent of young people attempted to change their weight, and 51 per cent were dissatisfied with their bodies. In response to these issues, Lebel promotes striving towards a healthy lifestyle for the sake of wellness rather than beauty.

The exhibit not only shed light on an important issue in an innovative way, but also acts as a piece in a much larger movement for inclusivity.

I shared some of my own personal experiences with Lebel, as she addressed relevant struggles I see almost daily among friends and colleagues. As a professional model, I’ve been limited by the requirements of a contract and seen the restrictions imposed by the fashion community. The artwork displayed in Models Wanted! clearly reflects the repercussions of the visual world I work in. Going into the exhibit, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but the artwork was startlingly relatable. It is difficult to get over feelings of comparison and inadequacy. In that room, it seemed, everyone saw a little bit of their own insecurity drawn out and realized.

Art as a tool: Artists on activism

Models Wanted! is a new addition to an already thriving artistic movement. Body image activism has long tackled the oppressive, patriarchal standards of beauty through art. Artists such as Jody Steele put body shaming culture morbidly on display, capturing the overwhelming pressure to be thin, in a similar way to the artwork the students created. Steele, and the students of the EducArt projet, bring an important discussion on the horrors of modern eating disorders and body image dysmorphia to the forefront.

The museum’s reforms are a part of a much larger history of activist art. The Models Wanted! collages can be linked to such artists as, Brian Jungen. Jungen is an Indigenous artist who is most famous for reassembling Nike Air Jordan sneakers to resemble Northwest Coast Aboriginal masks. His work closely resembles the students’, which were composed of multi-media images and beauty products for the purpose of criticizing the beauty-industrial complex. Both repurpose commercialized items to make a statement about culture and modern representations of fashion.

Body image inclusivity and acceptance is as much a personal struggle as it is a community driven issue.

The feminist undertones of the exhibit also reminded me the Guerrilla Girls, who challenged the institution of the museum with a strong and resilient presence. The artists’ activism undermined a culture of exclusivity and made bold strides toward acceptance and change. Models Wanted! is a step in this direction, creating a dialogue about the way art and media manipulate ideas of body image.

Society defines standards, community creates change

Body image inclusivity and acceptance is as much a personal struggle as it is a community driven issue. The way models are depicted in the media affects so much of how I shape myself as a woman, but those representations don’t need to perpetuate insecurity.

In so many ways, these societal standards divide and categorize people until there is nothing left but magazine clippings, beauty products, and the desire to be someone others would consider beautiful. This is why the MMFA exhibition was so profound. Its impact doesn’t lie solely in it’s art, rather in the community, created by the body image acceptance movement. In this way, the Education and Community sector’s greatest strength is the space it reinvents and the acceptance it extends.

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